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Track and Sign: Mourning Dove, the one bird everyone needs to know.

Updated: Mar 11

Whether you are taking a CyberTracker Track and Sign Evaluation or are just a curious about the natural world, you will encounter bird tracks, feathers, nests, eggs, and scat and wonder (or be asked) who they belong to. The Mourning Dove is a ubiquitous bird and is a common prey item for Cooper's hawks and domestic (feral) cats. I once witnessed a Greater Roadrunner stalk and kill a mourning dove! Most of the avian kill sites I encounter involve mourning doves. Spend any time in the field or your neighborhood and you will find such a site.


A mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) in afternoon light, San Diego.


Wing covert feather. See previous photo which will make it easy to pick out the location on the bird.


A variety of mourning dove feathers from a raptor kill site in my yard. Top row includes mostly primary and secondary wing feathers. Bottom row includes tail feathers. All feathers were neatly-plucked from the bird, with their shafts intact. When predators such as felines and canines are involved, many of the feathers may be damaged, either with tooth puncture marks in the feathers, broken shafts, or both.


Primary feathers from a kill site in Alpine, CA. The shaft of the top feather has been broken. Kill sites that involve raptor predators usually involve feathers that are plucked, with little or no damage to feather shafts, but an occasional damaged shaft may still be consistent with a raptor kill. The middle feather shows creases towards the bottom of the shaft, perhaps where it was gripped by the beak of a bird of prey.


Tail of a mourning dove killed by a roadrunner. Note the grey-black-and-white banding of the outer tail feather. The middle tail feathers have the same black band, but are otherwise gray to brownish, depending on the location on the tail. See next photo for a closeup of tail feathers.

Outer tail feather.


Inner, central tail feathers.


A pile of mourning dove scat, all found together as shown. Based on the spatial extent of the scats, a single bird produced all of these. Some trackers compare the morphology of mourning dove scat to 'cinnamon buns'. The resemblance is striking!

Another variation of the mourning dove scat with loose coils and very little uric acid.


Some mourning dove scat superficially appears like roadrunner scat, with a large uric acid cap, except the coil diameter is considerably smaller than that of roadrunners.

See these iNaturalist records for such 'pseudo-roadrunner' scat examples.

https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/21974042

https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/31651913


Mourning dove tracks usually show some 'pigeon-toed' characteristics, with the tracks and toes pointed towards the center of the trail. Curvature of one or more toes is often apparent.

Trail patterns of mourning dove are often distinctive, with a characteristic 'drunken walk' pattern.

Sometimes Mourning Dove tracks appear in an extremely straight line.


Another mourning dove 'sign' to look for is a nest. The Cornell Bird Laboratory describes mourning dove nest locations as quite variable, including house gutters, dense foliage of evergreen branches, orchards, abandoned equipment, mesquite, cottonwood, vines and commonly on the ground in the Western United States. Clutch sizes are reported to be 2 eggs, white in color, with diameters of 1 to 1.2 inches. The Cornell Laboratory provides a colorful description of the mourning dove nest: "A flimsy assembly of pine needles, twigs, and grass stems, unlined and with little insulation for the young. Over 2 to 4 days, the male carries twigs to the female, passing them to her while standing on her back; the female weaves them into a nest about 8 inches across. Mourning Doves sometimes reuse their own or other species’ nests."

Mourning Dove nest. Photo by Filip Tkaczyk.

A Greater Roadrunner kills a Mourning Dove in Borrego Springs, California. The roadrunner did not consume any part of the dove. We returned a few hours later to find the carcass unmoved and not scavenged.

Roadrunner picking up mourning dove before repeatedly slamming it into the ground.

Mourning dove carcass following encounter with Greater Roadrunner.

Sighting map from iNaturalist showing how widespread mourning doves are in the lower 48 states. Image from Feb. 2020.


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